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NEWBURGH, N.Y. — By his own account, Oscar Tendilla was a horrible middle school student, unmotivated and indifferent. Last month he became his family’s first college graduate. He now has plenty of career options, no debt and a diploma from Cornell University.

The 21-year-old son of Mexican immigrants relishes the tale of his turnaround. “I did poorly in middle school because I didn’t care,” Tendilla told me. He credits his rising ambitions to encouragement from his teachers at his Brooklyn high school, part of what was then a relatively new and untested high school network known as Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH).

Tendilla’s unlikely rise from muddled middle schooler to Ivy League graduate — he became valedictorian of Brooklyn P-TECH’s third graduating class in 2017, while also earning an associate degree from the New York City College of Technology (City Tech) — is explained in “Breaking Barriers: How P-TECH Schools Create a Pathway From High School to College to Career.” The new book was written by Stanley Litow, a former vice president of IBM and architect of the school model, and journalist Tina Kelley.  

“If you tell these ninth graders that you are going to be college students, and this is the path you are going to take, those who are really searching will hook on and believe in you.”

Rashid Ferrod Davis, principal, P-TECH Brooklyn

So many here-today, gone-tomorrow models in education don’t stick around, but P-TECH’s model, now in its 10th year, directly links students from historically underserved backgrounds to colleges and careers, with paid internships and intensive mentoring. Students have six years to graduate high school and obtain an associate degree for free, in an early college model that is becoming increasing durable, as new research shows.

By bridging the gap between what high schools teach and industries need, P-TECH, initially a partnership among IBM, the New York City school system and City Tech, has opened doors for thousands of students in communities with high concentrations of poverty. Its 266 schools now operate in 12 U.S. states and 28 countries, Litow told me. (The book is being published this month by Teachers College Press; The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College).

Leiyla Barth works on a car she made of recycled materials for her environmental science class. Credit: Liz Willen

Even after reading the book, I still found myself skeptical that recent middle school grads with no preparation could be ready for college-level work by tenth grade. As it turns out, many were not at first; NPR reported that in the fall of 2014, some 21 percent of the grades P-TECH students earned in their college courses were Ds and Fs.

Because P-TECH schools admit students from middle school via lottery, and have no entrance exams or academic requirements, these students can show up utterly unprepared. P-TECH networks everywhere recognized they had a lot of work to do immediately if they were going to get these teenagers ready. Not to mention all the eye-rolling confusion of early teenage years: distrust of authority, moodiness, uncertainty and a burning desire to fit in.

Related: What does career readiness look like in middle school?

“It’s allabout ninth grade,” Kevin Rothman, a former middle school math teacher and founding principal of Newburgh Free Academy P-TECH told me when I visited last week. Rothman loves this impossible age: He’s also the parent of a middle schooler and a ninth grader who himself attended schools in this largely Black and Latino school system 60 miles from New York City.

At P-TECH, ninth grade begins immediately after middle school graduation, every July. Ninth graders are assessed early – and often. “We try to keep tabs on their progress and build habits that help them succeed. If students do falter, we make adjustments and they try again,” Rothman said.

P-TECH Newburgh principal Kevin Rothman sits behind a large plastic shield in his office. Credit: Liz Willen

They also take part in study groups and attend school all year, supported by industry mentors, community college professors and one another. That model became particularly challenging when the pandemic moved the summer training program that builds the culture and foundation for the P-TECH experience online, a setback for incoming freshmen who couldn’t meet their teachers and one another in person until some trickled back two days a week last fall.

“Being at home, at first I really wasn’t sure I’d be able to talk to my teachers and I didn’t know how they’d get to know me. I had to find my groove,” Omari Jones, 15, told me. He nearly failed art class because he had trouble understanding the directions online.

Now he’s back in-person four days a week, a National Junior Honor Society student hoping to graduate with an associate degree in cybersecurity from P-TECH’s partner, Orange County Community College.

P-TECH Newburgh first opened in 2014 (along with 16 other P-TECH schools that began in New York State that fall), helped by state grants and public-private partnerships. This year, a record 29 P-TECH Newburgh students received associate degrees; 20 of them did it in four years. The school enrolls about 50 students each year and its 4-year high school graduation is 97 percent, Rothman said.

Freshman Delannia Gabriel found herself last distracted during the pandemic because so few students were speaking in class. Credit: Liz Willen

Freshman Matison Fowlin managed to thrive at P-TECH this year, despite taking all of her classes virtually and never setting a foot on campus because she was too worried about getting and spreading Covid. Working from home, she still managed to produce a beautifully detailed group science project with other classmates on the dangers of invasive species. She spoke to her teachers daily via Zoom.

“Of course, it was hard; this year was like a kick in the butt. But my teachers were really cool, and I’m keeping my priorities straight,” Matison told me during a Zoom conversation from principal Rothman’s office, where he sat behind an enormous plastic shield. “I have to figure out how to get to my goal: attend NYU and study medicine. My mom keeps telling her friends, ‘My baby is going to be a doctor, she is going to take care of me,’ and I know P-TECH can help me get there.”

Getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of the ninth-grade class has been challenging for P-TECH teachers during this on-again, off-again year, when they had to master teaching online and in-person simultaneously. Nationwide, nearly half of teachers who responded to a RAND survey said pandemic stress had hastened their decision to leave the profession.

P-TECH Newburgh’s teaching squad is tiny, just nine full-time instructors and a guidance counselor. When I spoke with a group of them last week and asked how many were planning to leave, they looked surprised. None are. 

“We care about the kids and believe in them from day one, and they know it,” said Torrance Harvey, the social studies teacher who also happens to be the mayor of the city of Newburgh and has a daughter at P-TECH.

“Being at home, at first I really wasn’t sure I’d be able to talk to my teachers and I didn’t know how they’d get to know me. I had to find my groove.”

Omari Jones, 15, freshman, P-TECH Newburgh

Before he joined P-TECH from a nearby district school, skeptical colleagues warned Harvey the new endeavor wouldn’t last. They’d already seen so many programs come and go in Newburgh, a scenic but high-crime community perched above the Hudson River, perennially poised for a comeback after being named the worst place to live in New York. Some 73 percent of students in the city school district graduate within four years, compared with 84.8 percent statewide.

Each year, P-TECH Newburgh gets about 75 applicants for its 50 spots. Teachers stay with the same student cohort all four years, learning their strengths, weaknesses and personal stories. During my visit, I watched English teacher Jacqueline Hesse encourage the 15 students in her class and about 10 others on Zoom to compile a portfolio for their personal websites.

“You might want to look back at your writing one day to remember what it was like starting high school in a pandemic,” Hesse told them.

Omari Jones, a freshman at Newburgh Free Academy P-TECH, in New York, works on an essay about his ideal high school Credit: Liz Willen

Omari showed me an essay he was writing about his ideal high school. Notwithstanding a few outsized and unrealistic exceptions — how many high schools have a barbershop, sports facility, recording story, 24-hour surveillance, kitchen and full-time counseling center? — it sounded a lot like P-TECH.

“In my ideal school, there would be a strong relationship between students and teachers,” Omari wrote. “There would be classes that all benefit the students in their adult life.”

That is part of what makes P-TECH stand out, along with internships and job opportunities at corporations like IBM and GlobalFoundries, and projects like a competition in an environmental science class to build the fastest car from recycled materials that was taking place the day I visited. Omari designed a car from old soda cans and added two motors “so I can crush the competition.” (He came in second.)

“This,” Rothman told me, as he pointed at the groups of students working together on their cars, “is the most tangible example of what college and career readiness is. We are doing it. Many of our students would not have gone to or graduated from college without P-TECH.”

Related: Momentum builds for career-focused P-TECH schools

Nationally, about 60 percent of P-TECH students earn an associate degree within six years of starting high school, Litow told me. The path to a degree for students who don’t get a head start in high school is a lot rockier: Forty-five percent of students who enter community college full time hold an associate degree six years later, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Just 14 percent finish within two years of starting.  

Of course, even at P-TECH, not all students attend or graduate from four-year colleges, but success is also measured by the number of students who get good jobs in the industries they were exposed to during internships. More than 200 young people have entered the workforce at companies like IBM, Corning and Tesla after completing the six-year program, Litow told me.

There are also plenty of challenges ahead for the school network, as detailed in the book: the need for ongoing federal, state, district and industry support to cover college tuition – and, Rothman said, “the need to change people’s minds” about the value of combining college and high school.

Jaier Smith and her twin sister Jakari Smith are getting ready for an end-of-year competition in environmental science teacher Joyce D’Imperio’s class. Credit: Liz Willen

And not every P-TECH succeeds: P-TECH Adirondack was phased out, in part due to funding struggles, while others have stumbled elsewhere and are trying to get back on track, the book acknowledges.

Rashid Ferrod Davis, the principal of P-TECH Brooklyn, is a firm believer in learning from earlier mistakes at his school, the network’s first and one that drew national attention after President Barack Obama visited in 2013. Like Rothman, Davis is a relentless advocate for his students, lining the school’s hallways with life size photos of its college graduates and constantly posting their career successes on social media.

He also loves to recount how many low performers in middle school now work at IBM, and remembers all the struggles they overcame.

“If you tell these ninth graders that you are going to be college students, and this is the path you are going to take, those who are really searching will hook on and believe in you,” Davis said. “That’s what happened to Oscar.”

This story about P-TECH was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Liz Willen, a longtime education journalist, has led the award-winning Hechinger Report staff as editor in chief since 2011. A sought-after moderator of education conferences and events, Willen also writes...

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